Reading Enfilade is one of my regular morning pleasures, along with a bowl of porridge, strong tea and freshly squeezed orange juice. For those of you who are unaware of this wonderful blog, I ought perhaps to explain that it is a marvellous compendium of news about 18th century art and architecture, updated nearly every day. It often acts as a nudge to my memory, to remember to book tickets to see an exhibition or to buy a book. Which is very appropriate for today is the blog’s third anniversary and its Editor, Craig Hanson has requested that we mark it by buying a book, an art book preferably, in order to help safeguard that part of the publishing industry. As he writes with dismaying clarity..
So as a gesture of positive action, I’m asking all of you to buy a book today (and fellow bloggers to spread the word). It’s easy to think that it won’t matter, but it does. Most people are astounded to learn just how small the circulation numbers are for art history books published by university presses. However humbling it may be for those of us who spend years of our lives producing a book, it’s not uncommon for only 400 or 500 copies to be sold. Surpass 1000 and you’re a superstar. There’s a tendency to assume that university presses receive generous funding from their host universities. It’s almost never the case. If they’re not in the business to turn huge profits, they must still be economically viable. Several years ago, I heard Susan Bielstein, executive editor at the University of Chicago Press, give a talk on the nuts and bolts of publishing. How did she begin? By asking members of her audience (almost entirely composed of art historians) to go buy a book. She was entirely serious. So am I.
Therefore…in a spirit of solidarity, I have to announce that today I bought a book.(Those of you who know me well will be shocked by this behaviour, I know…well, I actually bought the book under review on Monday…but I did buy another art book today, so I qualify on all counts. Ahem). The purchased book is a splendid and weighty volume, The London Square by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, published by Yale.
It is a history, from the 17th century to the present day, of the development of London’s Square, those lungs of green which have been so beneficial to the aesthetic of London and to the pleasure and convenience of its inhabitants. When I lived in London I lived in an area of small jewel-like squares and crescents-Barnsbury- and I still recall with delight walking around that area, enjoying its peace, set as it was between the impossibly busy Caledonian Road and Upper Street. Jane Austen knew London well, and, indeed, placed her characters in London with characteristic precision. For example, in Emma, Isabella Knightley lives in the “good air” of Brunswick Square, and in Pride and Prejudice, the Hursts, wealthy people of fashion, lived in Grosvenor Street, which adjoins Grosvenor Square, at a point in time when it was London’s most fashionable and largest square.
The development of the squares is explained particularly well. Aristocrats owned the parcels of land- in the Grosvenor estates case a mind-blowingly large parcel of 100 acres- and then leased the land to speculative builders. The book is especially good at winkling out interesting nuggets of information. For example, St. James’s Square-a place of terror in my mind, all related to the employment Appeal Tribunals I used to attend and which were held in what was once Lady Astor’s very grand house-did not at first have a green and secluded garden at its heart, but a large circular basin, filled with water. All as a result of the influence of one of Jane Austen’s ancestors, James Byrdges, the Duke of Chandos, a resident of the square, who had
… an amateur interest in hydraulics, who was a shareholder in the water company. It was in any regard a very practical conceit as it (the basin-jfw) served as a reservoir from which water could be drawn in the event of fire
In addition to being superbly written, this book is, as you would expect from Yale, fabulously illustrated. This illustration, below, of Hanover Square in 1769, for example, is fascinating and repays close inspection.(If you click on it a larger version will appear)
Cows graze in the middle distance, boys tease goats and fashionable ladies walk through it all with their trophies -small dogs on leads ( some things never change). I’m not sure this is exactly the scene Mary Crawford was imagining when she envisaged marrying Edmund Bertram here, in Mansfield Park. Or was it? Food for thought.
The second half of the book deals with the development of squares from the late Regency onwards, and I found the chapters dealing with the struggle to maintain the squares in the 1960s -grand and not so grand – when we seem to lose our way with regard to retaining the historical spaces of our cities, and London in particular, totally fascinating and riveting reading ( though I understand it is not a primary concern for those of you only interested in JAne Austen’s era).However, even Albert Square, of BBCs soap, Eastenders fame, gets an honourable mention, for Mr Longstaffe -Gowan is equally at home writing with authority of both grand projects and those that are rather more humble; for example, the Victorian squares in Hackney and Hoxton. But then he is the president of the London Parks and Gardens Trust. This is a wonderful book, and I think you would all enjoy it…and may even help establish a very worthy tradition of “Buy-a-Book Day”.
You may be interested to read Mr.Longstaffe-Gowan’s other book about an aspect of London life, The LondonTown Garden 1700-1840, shown below
First published in 2001, it has been a well-loved member of my library for over ten years, and I still enjoy reading its intelligent prose and devouring the sumptuous illustrations. Re-reading a book and enjoying it years after publication must be the highest practical praise a reader can bestow.
And finally, may I offer all at Enfilade my very sincere congratulations on your anniversary, and I hope for the continuance of my breakfast peace, more from you all to come for a very long time.